Juliet Walker: Going beyond journals

Juliet WalkerScientific publishing is no longer just about printing journals but increasingly includes online publishing, broadcasting, and creating online communities. A talk I attended given by Timo Hannay at University College London on 15 July demonstrated just how much scientific publishing has evolved and in how many ways it will still change. It was entitled “The future of scientific publishing”, but as Timo pointed out, there are many futures in store for scientific publishing.

The backdrop of this talk was the announcement on 3 June 2009 by UCL that they will now implement an open access mandate for all research published by UCL staff. All UCL research will now have to be placed in the university’s repository, where it can be openly accessed by all. Although there has been some resistance and considerable indifference towards open access publishing in the academic community, mandates such as this will ensure that open access really does become part of the future of scientific publishing, particularly if other institutions follow suit.

Open peer review is another way in which the web is changing scientific publishing. Timo spoke about a four month project run by Nature where peer review was conducted openly online. Papers that were submitted to Nature were placed online, and anyone could make comments and conduct their own review. At the same time the papers were sent out to reviewers as normal. The trial had limited success. The participation rate was only 5 – 10% and more than 50% of the papers that were placed online remained there without any comments. In no case did an online comment influence the editor’s decision as to whether to publish a paper or not. Clearly this form of open peer review isn’t going to be the future, or not at the moment anyway, but the principle of open peer review conducted online could be successful in a different form.

Keeping content online is increasingly not just about publishing content there for people to read. One of the key points for me from Timo’s talk was that journals are going to become more like databases. Journal websites will hold much more information than simply a research paper. There will be background data and additional information to supplement the research.

The web will also no longer be just a distribution channel but will enable discussions and create networks. This of course is nothing new. Social networking is commonplace. An example that Timo gave is openwetware, an online scientific community. The BMJ has its own social network, doc2doc. Blogs are another participatory element of the web. The drawback of all of these developments is that a lot of discussion online is quite informal. Not all academics want to have these discussions in public and have them documented for all eternity. The print journal is highly regulated and difficult to be a part of. The web is all inclusive and consequently at times less academic.

The web also allows journals to branch out into different media. Most journals now produce videos and podcasts to go with their written material, allowing publishers to become broadcasters as well.

The next step is to personalise all of these data so that users receive only information targeted specifically at them. According to Timo, mobile phones are the future in this respect. Soon almost everyone will have a touch screen internet phone and publishers will be able to use these to send specific articles or content to each user.

Most of these developments are already happening or are in the works. The main barrier to any of these is the question of how to make them financially viable. There is also the question of what the academic community wants. Someone spoke of all of these technologies becoming oppressive and counterproductive. Submitting a research paper used to be about putting a paper in an envelope in the post, whereas it now requires a researcher to submit online and post in an online repository as well as participating in an online community and sorting through the overwhelming amount of information available online.

I left the talk feeling positive about the industry I work in. So often I hear news of paper being dead and publishing going out of business, but it seems to me that publishers are going to take on more and more roles. Publishing will still be about editing and creating content but also supplementing it with additional data and monitoring comments. It will also be about broadcasting information via different media and nuturing communities online. As the amount of content online grows publishers will become more, not less important, as they will navigate users towards important information. It is clear to me that publishing will be about more than just producing journals. That will not necessarily be a bad thing.

Juliet Walker is the assistant web editor, bmj.com